After the salmon

Abandoned Namu, B.C., tells the tale of lost abundance

For the first time in 11,000 years there’s nobody living in Namu, British Columbia.

But when Heiltsuk hereditary chief Harvey Humchitt steps ashore, he’s greeted within a minute by a hardhat-wearing site supervisor.

“Did you see the sign?” he asks the group, haughtily. Visitors are prohibited due to safety concerns, and large signs warning trespassers away loom over the landing sites.

Chief Humchitt simply smiles genially as he is introduced to the man — this is, after all, his traditional territory. He is free to do as he pleases here, a site where he grew up as his father fished the waters nearby.

Located on British Columbia’s central coast about 35 kilometres southeast of Bella Bella, in the Great Bear Rainforest, Namu has been a place of cultural significance for local First Nations people for as long as records, memories and oral histories reach back.

But now Namu sits abandoned with buildings full of asbestos sagging, rusting fuel tanks sitting askew on rotting plank floors, old batteries and engine parts spilling out of an engineering shed into the water below.

The first fish cannery opened in Namu in 1893. By 1923 the facility had been purchased by B.C. Packers, one of the most dominant fishing companies in the province, and Namu was transformed into a complex of salmon and herring processing plants, warehouses, a power plant and three distinct camps dividing Indigenous, white and Japanese workers and their families.

Men, women and children navigated the maze of structures along boardwalks interconnecting daily life with one of B.C.s most bustling aquaculture hubs.

Diminishing salmon stocks led to the Namu cannery being closed in 1970 and the remote town has long since fallen into disrepair. Yet a more proactive approach to revitalizing salmon runs has renewed interest in Namu and what can be done to eliminate the hazardous waste that sits at the mouth of a productive salmon spawning river.

Humchitt worked in Namu in the 1960s alongside many other Heiltsuk people and today, he and his nation are working with the provincial and federal governments to clean up Namu and re-establish a community there.  

Humchitt said Namu, left in the wake of a boom and bust mentality, contains a lesson.

“Any type of developments that take place should include local people, he said, and it should be in a sustainable manner. That way it would ensure that the community of a place like Namu would be revitalized and it would ensure continuous community development.”

All photos by Taylor Roades / Canada C3

New title

Hey there keener,

Thanks for being an avid reader of our in-depth journalism, which is read by millions and made possible thanks to more than 4,200 readers just like you.

The Narwhal’s growing team is hitting the ground running in 2022 to tell stories about the natural world that go beyond doom-and-gloom headlines — and we need your support.

Our model of independent, non-profit journalism means we can pour resources into doing the kind of environmental reporting you won’t find anywhere else in Canada, from investigations that hold elected officials accountable to deep dives showcasing the real people enacting real climate solutions.

There’s no advertising or paywall on our website (we believe our stories should be free for all to read), which means we count on our readers to give whatever they can afford each month to keep The Narwhal’s lights on.

The amazing thing? Our faith is being rewarded. We hired seven new staff over the past year and won a boatload of awards for our features, our photography and our investigative reporting. With your help, we’ll be able to do so much more in 2022.

If you believe in the power of independent journalism, join our pod by becoming a Narwhal today. (P.S. Did you know we’re able to issue charitable tax receipts?)

Help power our ad-free, non‑profit journalism